NEW YORK – Organic cotton and reusable bags are steps toward the greening of the fashion industry, but organizers of the Runway to Green project say considering the size, scope and celebrity of players such as Gucci, Burberry, Stella McCartney and Tommy Hilfiger, it can do much more.
The project kicks off Tuesday night, with 29 top-tier designers staging a runway show to raise money for environmental education and awareness programs. The designers also have agreed to participate in the Natural Resources Defense Council's Clean by Design program, which will teach them how to integrate greener practices into many aspects of their businesses, from raw materials, fabric finishing and production, to packaging, recycling and shipping.
Designer Jason Wu is interested in tackling the dyeing process. "The information I want for myself from this is: What dyes should we use? What does 'naturally dyed' mean? Is it better for the environment? If it's using thousands of insects that are part of the ecosystem to create the dyes, is that better? I really don't know," says Wu.
Many of the designers seem knowledgeable about the problems — and even potential solutions — says Linda Greer, a director for the NRDC, but they don't know how to get from here to there.
That's where Runway to Green can serve as a pathway.
"I think what we've all discussed in this industry many times is that there are complications with making anything green. We want to help designers take the very first step. We want them to be more and more green as time goes on," says Sylvana Ward-Durrett, co-founder of Runway to Green and Vogue's special events director.
Shoppers have to be trained, too, so they'll want the new products and be willing, in all likelihood, to pay a little more. Nothing gets businesses to change their practices faster than consumer pressure, adds Lorenzo Roccia, chairman and another co-founder with Luisana Mendoza.
Consumers demanded environmentally friendly options in beauty and food products — and now those industries are farther ahead in green practices than fashion, notes Greer.
"We hope consumers and designers become synchronized in their messages. We want people to like the next wave of green products, and we want them to like them and buy them because they're good, because they're chic and fashionable, and, oh yeah, because they're green," Ward-Durrett says.
Items from the Runway show, including Alexander Wang's one-shoulder dress, Rachel Roy's shirtdress with hand-painted touches and Rag & Bone's waistcoat, will be immediately available for sale on Net-a-Porter.com, with at least 10 percent of net proceeds going toward Runway to Green. They'll go to other retailers in a few months as part of the designers' fall collections.
Wu is offering an illusion-top, full-length gown.
The more brands involved — from the big to the small — the better it will be, he says, because they are hoping to examine the making of a garment start to finish.
Rachel Roy wants to take on packaging. When she first launched her shoe collection and received her very first pair from the manufacturer, she says she was immediately unhappy with the amount of paper used to wrap them. She worked with the factory to reduce the paper by 50 percent.
Might there be a slightly greater chance for damage during shipping? Yes, says Roy, but she is convinced — and she thinks shoppers will agree — that the risk is worth it.
Greer, of the NRDC, wants designers to come to this initiative armed with questions, personal pet interests and a can-do spirit. "We're hoping to give designers a menu of options of where to start — and we don't expect to do them all at once — and any of them would be fine with me."
She ticks off potential jumping-off points: rail freight and ocean shipping containers instead of airplanes; fabrics that can be machine-washed in cold water instead of hot (or instead of being dry cleaned).
These aren't quick and easy fixes and will require more of a commitment, including a financial one, to adopt, but once things start changing, Greer hopes the movement will be sustainable.
"What the fashion industry has done to date is the occasional green item, and that doesn't affect the majority of the way they make their stuff. 'Green' materials doesn't really affect how it's manufactured," Greer explains. "What we're hoping for is that this is a new chapter, a much bigger chapter," rather than a one-off.
The industry's ability to think out of the box is what's needed most, because some solutions aren't yet developed, Greer says.
The industry, while competitive, also knows how to come together for a cause, observes Hilfiger, noting its fundraising history for breast cancer and AIDS charities. The environment is next on the radar, he says.
"It's part of being a good global citizen," Hilfiger says, "and fashion is a global business. ... If we can all get together, all of us, I think we have enough influence."
Hilfiger says everything is on the table, from reusing water bottles at the office to LED lighting in stores. A big thing will be rethinking travel, but he's willing to do that, too. (If he weren't, his 17-year-old daughter would get on his case like she has about recycling everything at home.)
Rachel Roy's father insisted on a no-waste food policy all her life, she says, so composting — or even feeding scraps to her dogs — has always been the norm. She thinks the way to green fashion is to incorporate good practices into everyday routines.
"It's an overwhelming subject, like most important subjects in our lives. The way I've approached it is very natural, one step at a time. I ask what's in my immediate path and what can I do to leave a situation a little better than I found it?" Roy says.